Slidin' to the Island

A ride from San Francisco to Honolulu aboard a custom Bob Perry 65-footer in the West Marine Pacific Cup gives special meaning to the word "surfing"

The first day was the wildest, the weirdest, the most unexpected. Well, of course, not counting the last one, but we'll get to that later. Point is, when I signed on with the crew of the 65-foot, Bob Perry-designed sloop Icon last summer to sail the 2004 West Marine Pacific Cup from San Francisco to Hawaii, I wasn't sure what I was getting into. Sure, I harbored the usual Sailor Boy Island Fantasies, of deep blue water and billowing spinnakers, of flowered leis and tall mai tais. And all those visions did, in fact, come true. So it's safe to say that my dreams were well-founded. It was, as usual, reality that threw me for a loop.

Take, for instance, that cool, fresh, 25-knot southwesterly pumping across the starting line just off the St. Francis Yacht Club last July 2. It felt much more real than the forecast-but-AWOL six- to nine- knot breeze, which had been overruled with gusty authority. "Is this what 'six to nine' feels like on the East Coast?" asked my Canadian watchmate Kevin McMeel, a regular on Icon's mostly Seattle-based crew. "The air's a bit denser out here, eh?"

Perhaps the air was dense, but I wasn't, and the weather had nabbed my full attention. But so too had our competition. The Pacific Cup employs a staggered start over five days, with the smaller boats and cruisers setting out early and the bigger vessels, including Icon, bringing up the rear. That way, in theory, everyone fetches up at the finish off Oahu's Kaneohe Yacht Club at roughly the same time. Our four-boat Division F--the last to begin, with the rest of the 49-boat fleet already under way--had the smallest number of competitors but included another Seattle entry, Braveheart, a flat-out Transpac 52 racer, and a brand-new 80-foot maxi from Long Beach, Magnitude 80. They looked formidable indeed.

That is, until compared with the remaining vessel in our foursome, the otherworldly Mari-Cha IV, the 140-footer owned by Duty Free magnate Robert Miller, whose sole interest in our little boat race was stomping the bejesus out of the 6-day-14-hour course record for the 2,070-mile passage. Bent to their coffee grinders with arms flailing, M-C IV's small army of maritime mercenaries from France and New Zealand hoisted the main and mizzen in unison just minutes before the start, then buzzed our transom on a screaming reach at a good 20-knot clip. Aboard Icon, eyebrows skied and jaws dropped.

But not for long, for we had our own voyage to get on with. Skipper Jim Roser nailed the start, and after three tacks, the Golden Gate Bridge was overhead and the vast Pacific Ocean all before us. Not much later, the tall rigs of Magnitude 80 and M-C IV were little more than angled slits on the horizon, and then one was gone, followed by the other. We'd wondered all week how long we'd have Mari-Cha IV in our sights. It'd been a great two hours.

Our own little match race with Braveheart came to a close when we changed headsails from our Number Three jib to a blast reacher and footed off to the south, leaving our closest competition to their own devices on a more northerly heading. We were yet to realize the error of our way.

At dusk, we cruised out from under the blue skies above and into a dense, gray murk. There were gusts to 28 knots. We tucked the first reef in the main. For some, dinner was a two-part affair: Down, then back up. Chris Roberts, our wiry bowman, took the helm and recorded a top speed of 18.3 knots, but mostly we averaged between 12 and 15. From the windward of her twin wheels, Icon was a blast to drive. We all took our turns. The full moon made only intermittent appearances but cast a hazy, welcome glow to the proceedings. That said, the first night at sea was eerie, tiring, damp, and long. Trade winds? Spinnakers? Not so fast, pal.

Morning broke. We saw a whale. And 24 hours into it, navigator Bruce Hedrick--my old buddy from a crazy race we'd contested in Alaska many years before, my link to the Icon team--came up on deck with the seemingly good news that we'd already knocked off 303 miles.

But he wasn't smiling.

Born to Surf
No, we weren't having many yuks yet. So for owner Dick Robbins, the voyage thus far was fatally flawed. Having a good time sailing had always been a clear priority for Dick, first aboard his old Maple Leaf 48, Sea Bear, and certainly with his next boat, the S&S-designed, 57-foot Charisma. Of course he wanted to win, but he also wanted everyone aboard to thoroughly enjoy the experience. It was the reason he'd decided on a light, fast, striking sled like Icon in the first place.

A mechanical engineer by trade, for some four decades Dick had been the driving force behind The Robbins Company, a pioneering firm in tunnel-boring technology whose latest major achievement was drilling the English Channel "chunnel." He inhabited a high-tech world and was also an adventurous sailor, bush pilot, and survivor, having walked away from a commercial-airline crash in Africa that took scores of lives. Little wonder that when he ultimately commissioned his own custom racer/cruiser, it had to be bold, lively, and cutting edge.

In Jim Roser, the professional skipper and competitive racing sailor who'd overseen a major refit with Charisma, then helped Dick cruise and campaign the boat throughout the Pacific Northwest and on offshore races like the Vic-Maui (from Victoria, British Columbia, to Hawaii), he had a very willing co-conspirator. But the central member of the design team, naval architect Bob Perry, at first glance might not have been as obvious a choice for the project. Bob had certainly made his mark with such seminal modern cruising designs as the Valiant 40, but he was equally renowned for such heavier, full-displacement, Taiwan-built boats as the Baba 30 and many others. And Icon, most assuredly, was not your daddy's Baba 30.

But Dick, like Bob, resides in Washington state, and he was a longtime admirer of the Seattle-based designer's work. A collaborative effort to bring the notion of Icon to ocean-sailing fruition was soon under way (see "A Design Brief Fulfilled"). The boat they envisioned had to be nimble and quick, but also strong--"bulletproof" was the operative word--and easily cruised by two couples. It took a full year of weekly visits to Bob's office before the design team had what it was searching for.

For reasons of cost and quality, Icon was built in New Zealand at Marten Marine of high-modulus, pre-preg carbon fiber. And everything was carbon: the hull, deck, interior, and Southern Spar rig. A retractable keel was specified to provide upwind grunt on the racecourse and shallow draft when cruising. Wholesale portions of the accommodation plan and other hardware--some 4,000 pounds worth--were fitted so they could be readily removed to transform the boat from cruising to racing mode. And in every nook and cranny, the attention paid to style and detail was impressive.

Jim Roser once said the seed that became Icon had been planted during a Vic-Maui race aboard Charisma: "We buried the bow quite successfully a couple of times, and Dick learned what it's like to not surf. We came to the conclusion that it'd be real cool to have a surfing boat, one that could go destination racing and then cruise wherever you wound up."

It proved to be a doable plan, and since her launch in 2001, Icon had already finished a Sydney-Hobart race, a Transpac, and a Vic-Maui and had cruised the coastlines of New Zealand, Australia, and Alaska. Now, pounding to weather off the coast of California in the Pacific Cup, we all wanted a taste of what had been the boat's genesis and inspiration. We were ready for a little surfin', too. But it was going to take a little patience.

Sharks vs. Jets
Our initial mistake had been diving south too early, for it soon became apparent that weatherwise, the 2004 edition wasn't going to be a "typical" Pacific Cup (see "Skirting the Pacific High"). But we'd dealt ourselves this hand of cards, and now it was time to play them.

The one thing we had going for us was a versatile, talented, and motivated nine-person crew, which skipper Roser divided into two watches designated as the Sharks and the Jets. The latter was composed of the captain himself; his wife, Robin (not only an excellent driver but also one of the great sea cooks of our time); owner Robbins; navigator Hedrick, who'd been this way many times before; and bosun Joe Greiser, whose constant attention to the serious, never-ending matter of chafed spinnaker halyards and other potential breakdowns was unsung and unwavering.

We Sharks were led by watch captain McMeel, with an endless supply of raucous sea stories from his 80,000 miles of offshore voyaging that kept us entertained through many a long evening's trick; bowman Roberts, a transplanted Bostonian whose love of sailing was pure and infectious; and young sailmaker Karl Funk, a late addition to the team who brought an inshore racer's unrelenting focus to the long-haul enterprise. As the resident cruiser in this mix of vastly experienced racing sailors, my main goal was to avoid mucking things up. At times, I enjoyed mild success. But not always.

For I was soon to learn that driving a rocket like Icon at double-digit speeds on a black night in shifty breeze under a big kite can be a mighty challenge. And I was in for yet another surprise. Especially in the wee hours, the Pacific trades were anything but a flick-the-switch phenomenon of steady, pumping, reliable pressure. They were fluky, fluctuating, and maddeningly elusive, with instant, radical shifts of 20 through 50 degrees and more. At least when I was at the bloody helm.

When the wind clocked to the north just before dusk on our second day under way, we'd hoisted a reaching spinnaker, hung a slight right, and began making tracks directly toward the islands. With that, the official rivalry between the Sharks and the Jets was on. Bruce filed the following Fourth of July dispatch to Icon's shoreside followers the next day: "The slow watch--the Sharks--set a new record for round-ups early on until skipper Jimmy Jet went on deck to teach them how to sail."

It was a bit more than I could take, and when Bruce was sleeping at the next watch change, I issued my own e-mail rebuttal: "Let's just say there are two ways of steering to Hawaii FAST under spinnaker. One is 'low and slow' Jets style, one is high and quick. Yes, at times, when chances are being taken, when miles are being made, the occasional spinout does occur. When you're trying to make up for the off watch, there's no other option. So now, while the Jets are cooled, it's time once again for the Sharks to get Icon up to speed. Fins up! Icon clear." That was my story, and I was sticking by it. I could've signed it, "Easily Amused." But, in fact, Icon was a very happy ship, and the sailing was getting better by the day.

We peeled spinnakers from the reaching kite to the big A2 masthead asymmetric, a sail we'd carry for several days and well over a thousand miles without ever considering a change. Though the boats to the north of us were pulling steadily away, we continued to knock off daily runs in the 250-mile range. There were small changes from the everyday routine: One afternoon, we backed down the boat to clear a fishing net from the keel; on another, we were hailed via VHF by a lonely solo sailor who'd lost her SSB and wanted her friends to know she was OK. But mostly we worked together to sail Icon as fast as we could, for she was the center of our shared universe.

And by coincidence, Chris, Joe, and I celebrated birthdays within a day of one another, and Robin's great meals made them very special occasions. Chris took to the keyboard to post this birthday greeting: "Magical moments aren't hard to come by on this amazing body of water. Karl saw his first flying fish and then his second, which soared a solid 75 feet before plunging into a wave. The ocean makes a sweet, harmonious hum as it whizzes past the hull. The clouds--black, gray, white, purple--all billow and swirl with sun bursts and blue skies busting through. And speaking of blue, the color of the ocean is amazing--everything you can imagine in the word 'aqua,' and then some.

"We all collaborate and work hard at finessing the sails to the wind, which in turns caresses us, teases us, and punishes us but always keeps us guessing, optimistic, and busy. Meanwhile, Icon delivers us safely through this magical nature."

It was pretty hard to think of a better birthday present.

Squished in the Squash Zone
"Drive it like it's stolen!" were Jim's parting words of advice as he disappeared down the companionway at the change of yet another watch. And we did as instructed, tweaking and trimming for all we were worth. As we closed to within a couple of hundred miles of the islands, our fate was sealed: Mari-Cha IV had already finished in foregone conclusion, posting a new Pacific Cup record of 5 days, 5 hours, and it was clear we'd bring up the rear in our class. But we were still sailing hard, jibing up to six times a day to optimize our heading or to try to sniff out better breeze.

Even so, the Transpacific veterans in the crew remained chagrined by the relatively light conditions we'd experienced on the voyage. "Even the squalls on this trip have been a little disappointing," said Kevin. "El Pacifico has lived up to her name." But for me, a rookie in these waters, ignorance was bliss. You will never, ever hear me complain about steady boat speeds of 12 to 14 knots, or better, hour after hour after hour. It'd been a funky beginning, sure, but the foulies and jibs were distant memories of a trip that'd gotten warmer, clearer, and more fun with each passing day.

So I guess it was only poetic justice that on our last night of racing, we'd have to pay the piper one final time--OK, make that two--before that first, fruity libation ashore.

We Sharks had drawn the 2200-0200 watch, and as predicted, the compressed trades were staunch and building as we closed in on the peaks of the island chain. The anemometer hadn't risen above 20 knots for over a week, but it was there now. And was that more breeze under the dark cloud closing fast on our hip? At precisely that moment, the big A2 exploded, Chris hollered, "All hands on deck! The chute's gone!," and Icon instantly descended into a scene of controlled chaos. As I ran forward and began a mad grope at the untamed masses of sail cloth, all I could think of was that apocryphal ocean racer's lament: "We put 'em up, God takes 'em down."

Twenty minutes later, we had a rugged A3 spinnaker up and drawing. Dick was philosophical about the destroyed A2, saying, "I guess we got our money's worth out of that sail." But after changing watches, we learned the night wasn't through with us yet. Only now it was the Jets' turn for drama.

Jim took the wheel and wouldn't let go as the wind gusted to 30 in a fresh squall, and Icon plowed through the waves at 20 knots. All well and good, except for one thing: There was a large island directly in front of us. At 0430, the call came below: "Everybody up. Time to jibe."

The lights of Maui were right there; yup, it was definitely time to swing the wheel. We'd already pulled off countless jibes, day and night, without a hitch, but not this time. Something happened to the tack line, or maybe the spin sheet; it was under the bow! "Sheet on," someone yelled. "Well, um--" said I. The sail took a big, flapping wrap around the headstay, and then another full twist, just for good measure.

At least it was dark. We could sort out the mess without anyone seeing.

The Rearview Mirror
Hours later, with those leis around our necks and another round of cold cocktails by the yacht-club pool, there was little mention of the two hours it took to clear the decks and hoist one last chute one last time. It was much better to recall that crisp, early light over Oahu, how we all got a final turn at the helm, and what a joy it was to notch 17 knots on the speedo as Icon rose, plunged, and surfed before the big following swells. Spinnaker wrap? What spinnaker wrap?

As expected, our time of 8 days, 22 hours earned us fourth place in a fleet of four, on both elapsed and corrected time. Did last place, I wonder, always feel this good? Truthfully, it didn't matter to me one way or the other. All I really wanted to do was go back to California and try it all over again.

Herb McCormick is CW's editor.